If social media is to be believed, and most of the time it’s okay to be cautious, #SelfCare is everything from wearing onesies on the couch, to bubble baths with candles, to expensive products, trips, and beauty treatments. But does caring for yourself really mean dropping all your money into supplements and wellness retreats? What would a practical, meaningful self-care practice look like? Why does that matter?
Here are some of the most important takeaways on how you can build meaningful self-care for yourself and your clients.
What Makes Self-Care Meaningful?
Consider for a moment what it means to care for something. Whether it’s a house plant, a pet, a small child, or our elders, when we deeply care for someone or something, we go out of our way to ensure their needs are met. Caring for yourself is no different.
Meaningful self-care is when we build habits and practices that meet our foundational needs. When marketed on social media as products and services, self-care becomes a commodity. Over time the selling of self-care leads to confusion, avoidance, and frustration.
Alternatively, learning about oneself, your needs, and how to meet those needs creates a stable foundation for purpose, meaning, accomplishment, and wellbeing. As a coach, I often find I am giving my clients permission to prioritize practices that meet their needs instead of spending more money on things they don’t.
Additive, Positive Habits
Ongoing self-care is built on the routine habits and practices that keep foundational needs met. Whether your goal is to build positive mental health, achieve success in work or school, support your family or community, or actualize on your purpose, you’ll be better equipped if your foundational needs are met.
While our foundational needs are not as trendy as bath bombs and beauty products, the systems to meet them are far more impactful. Abraham Maslow’s well-known “Hierarchy of Needs” lists air, food, water, shelter, sleep, and reproduction as physiological needs. For your own wellbeing you might consider an updated list:
• Stable living situation
• Nourishing food
• Mental health practices
• Stable income
When considering each of these needs, ask yourself what behaviors will help you keep those needs met and create the foundation for your wellness. When you have the foundations dialed in, consider your higher order needs:
• Financial stability and long-term planning
• Connection and friendship
• Community and legacy
• Communication style
• Hobbies, pleasure, fun, enjoyment
• Passion and purpose
If these larger ideas seem overwhelming, remember that behavior change happens progressively and the most effective behavior changes are small, steady, and have positive emotional payoff. The goal isn’t to change your whole life and routine at once, but to build sustainable practices that craft a lifestyle.
Responding to Stress
In an ideal world we’d all be regulated and balanced all the time; but life is full of challenges. Some challenges we expect, and others we’d never anticipate. Depending on your culture, family of origin, and lives experiences you may have grown up learning to cope with stress in ways that harm your well-being.
Meaningful self-care isn’t only about our healthy habits. It’s also the practices that help you deal with stress, process anything challenging that comes up, integrate what you’ve learned along the way, and get back into equilibrium.
One common roadblock can be the way the brain and nervous system react to stress. Difficult emotions narrow our focus and thinking, which can result in rumination and repetition of previous patterns. For our ancestors that narrow thinking helped survive threats, but in the chronic overstimulation and stress of the modern world it contributes to burnout.
In contrast, positive emotions help us think more creatively, problem-solve, and can even heal the damage from stress to the nervous system. That means that when we’re already stressed, we’re likely to repeat bad coping strategies, despite our best intentions.
One solution is to reflect on past coping when you’re calm, consider how you’d like to handle difficult situations and stress differently, and then plan for what you’ll do going forward.
• A five-minute loving kindness meditation or gratitude practice to prime a positive emotional state.
• Recall the last time you were really stressed out. Journal: How did you cope with that stress?
• If you don’t like how you handled your stress, list 3 to 5 things you’d like to do next time instead.
• Post your list somewhere you’ll see it when you’re stressed – commit to try at least a few on the list before reaching for less helpful coping strategies.
Plans about self-care are well intended, but somehow many of us still struggle to see them through. Here are a few common challenges I’ve encountered with clients and students:
• Healthy Boundaries
Our days are often filled to overflowing. Whether it’s Slack messages from the CEO on a Saturday morning, keeping up with your kid’s schedules, or reacting to your partner’s emotional dysregulation there are many ways our self-care strategies can be derailed. Keeping those diversions in balance is a challenge. Not only in saying “no,” but many people struggle with the feeling of guilt when they do make time for themselves.
One strategy that has helped my clients has been setting the boundary, then recognizing how much more effectively they show up for work, their kids, their partners, and other meaningful events. By experimenting with boundary setting and feeling the benefits they’re able to work through difficult emotions like guilt and shame. It might be beneficial to work with a qualified mental health professional if those emotions are preventing you from the progress you’re striving for.
• Good Enough Over Perfect
Another common challenge is the feeling our habits need to be just right to be effective. This kind of perfectionism can show up when clean eating goes too far, over-exercising, and any time a wellness or fitness practice becomes overwhelming. When that happens the need to be perfect either negatively impacts other parts of our lives or we avoid that practice because it’s now overwhelming.
In his book The Paradox of Choice, Dr. Barry Schwarts shares his research showing that when we focus on getting the “best” of everything we’re far less happy than those who can set a threshold for “good enough”. Those “good enough” people know when they’ll be satisfied and then let themselves enjoy it. In contrast, those seeking the best of everything all the time end up with a constantly moving bar and never feel like enough.
To avoid this trap, whether it’s self-care or fitness, ask yourself what is good enough to reach your goals. Then, when your work to change pays off allow yourself to enjoy it.
Self-care is ongoing. Throughout the day, the month, and the course of our lives. Just like your wellness journey, self-care is an ongoing process and not only some habits you check off each morning. Investing the time and energy into considering and refining those practices can have big payoffs for your well-being long term.